Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2012

The Sinkings, by Amanda Curtin

The SinkingsAs you will have seen from the Sensational Snippet I posted from The Sinkings, debut author Amanda Curtin has a gift with words.  I was completely seduced by this book and even broke a long held rule of mine to finish it: I never take library books away with me on any trip in case QANTAS loses my luggage again, but The Sinkings went with me to Canberra this weekend because I could not bear to leave it behind.  It is that good.

There is a dual plot.  Willa Samson is disabled by guilt and grief, and has withdrawn from life.  But a small snippet of a story from a book she was copy-editing twelve years ago has niggled away in her memory and she decides to fill her empty days with some idle research to see if she can solve a rather strange mystery…

The book she had worked on was an historical journal called Past Lives, and the article that caught her attention was the tale of an ex-transportee called Little Jock, whose dismembered remains had been found in 1882, at a deserted campsite called The Sinkings.  The ferocity of the attack was odd enough, but stranger still was that at the autopsy, the remains of this man were identified as female.

And so begins a trail across the centuries, as Willa seeks to assuage her misery with an investigation into the strange life of Little Jock, both man and woman and yet not really either.  And before long the reason for Willa’s interest is revealed: her daughter Imogen was born with a similar condition and some distressing event has triggered Willa’s loss of this beloved daughter.  For most of the book the reader does not know the nature of that loss – death? suicide? estrangement? committed to a mental hospital?  There is real mastery in the way this enticing tale has been plotted so that the chronology moves both backwards and forwards in time with the mystery of Imogen at its heart.

The intensity of Willa’s barely suppressed grief and the strength of her obsession with the family history of Little Jock makes us wonder about her grip on reality at times: she spends money she can ill afford, she risks alienating her brother with the sale of a special car that he had long coveted, and she takes off across the world to Scotland (in winter!!) on a whim.  She has so isolated herself from others that she pushes away harmless friendly overtures from a fellow family researcher, and chooses to live instead like a hermit – with only a cat for some semblance of affection in her life.  The lyrics from ‘Eleanor Rigby’ kept echoing in my mind as I read this: All the lonely people, where do they all come from?’ 

This would be a fascinating book for book groups to discuss because the issue of gender identity is central to the author’s purpose.  There is an ethical minefield for parents faced with decisions about early surgery, and the notion of non-conforming gender is a confronting one in our highly gendered society.  There isn’t, apparently, even agreement about what people with this condition  would like themselves to be called, and as you can see I have done my best to respect this by not using any kind of label.  Curtin has – without being heavy-handed or overly earnest – tackled a most original subject in an engaging and respectful way that humanises both people who have the condition and those who love them.

I think Amanda Curtin promises to be one of our most interesting writers of the upcoming generation.

There’s an interesting interview with Amanda Curtin at Bookslut, and Angela Meyer reviewed it too.

Author: Amanda Curtin
Title: The Sinkings
Publisher: University of Western Australia Press, 2008
ISBN: 9781921401114
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Fishpond: The Sinkings


  1. This looks like a very interesting read. I will check it out at my library.



    • I hope it’s widely available. It deserves to be.


  2. I completely agree with you about Curtin being one of our best. I enjoyed her new collection, Inherited, even more than The Sinkings. I’m excited to continue following her career.

    This is a great review Lisa, by the way. I loved the moody nature of the scenes set in the past.


    • Thanks, Angela – did you review it too? I follow so many blogs and get so many publisher newsletters, I can’t remember where this one came to my attention. I’d like to add your URL if so….

      BTW If you add your blog URL when you are filling in the comment form, it will form a link with your name and then readers can click through to your blog if they want to (which I’m sure they do!)


  3. A great review of a great book. We chose it for our book club and it generated lots of very interesting discussion. Are you taking part in the Australian Women Writers Reading & Reviewing Challenge? It would be great to link this review there so other potential readers will see it.


    • Hi Annabel and welcome, to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers:) I think Curtin is an exceptional writer and she deserves to be widely read.
      As to the Challenge – well, no. Firstly because I’m a bit fed up with Challenges, They were beginning to take over my reading, and I was feeling pressured by my reading commitments – something I never want to feel about my reading.
      But also, I don’t feel that I have anything to prove in respect of Australian writing in general or women’s writing in particular. I’m a bit peeved that all the stats about the gender bias issue focus on print reviews (which have a declining readership) and ignore the contribution of bloggers online (which have a growing readership) – all the blogs that I read, review women’s writing generously and have no case to answer. My gender bias, if there is one, is transparent, I log all my reviews in the category Author Gender and my stats hover around 45/55%, a respectable percentage considering that as well as reviewing contemporary Oz fiction, I also read in genres dominated by men – history, politics and the classics.


      • That’s very interesting, Lisa; I hadn’t heard that the stats were focusing on print media and I can see that an analysis of digital media would provide a more balanced perspective.

        I understand what you mean about challenges too, but this one has been good for me as it is correcting a somewhat negative bias against Australian fiction.

        Keep up the great work :)


        • Thanks, Annabel, I intend to *grin*
          I reckon the best way to promote Australian fiction – by authors of both genders – is to read it and review it! I am much heartened by the WordPress stats that lurk in the innards of this blog, because they show that ever increasing numbers of overseas readers are reading my posts about OzLit, and coming back for more. And I know from my interactions on GoodReads that when they can get hold of them, friends from the US, UK, Canada and Africa are buying and reading the books too. (If only they could buy more of them as eBooks and avoid the postage!!)
          Other bloggers doing fantastic work to promote OzLit include Sue from Whispering Gums, Marg at Intrepid Reader, the two Tonys (Tony’s Book World and Tony’s Reading List), Matt at A Novel Approach and Kim at Reading Matters in London. Stu at Winston’s Dad in the UK tweets every blog post I do to his thousands of followers too, bless him.
          I believe that it’s honest, open, fair reviewing online that is bringing Australian literature a whole new readership of people who want something different.
          PS Just in case you’re wondering, it was Roger McDonald (When Colts Ran) who christened me ‘Ambassador for Australian Literature” at the Miles Franklin presentation ceremony last year, and I’m proud of it!


          • It’s great to hear that overseas readers are interested in Australian fiction. Thanks for the recommendations for the other blogs – I will definitely check those out. ‘Ambassador for Australian Literature’ – impressive!


  4. Another book added to the list. Looks a fascinating read.


    • Hi Julie – I’m not sure whether I’m a bad or a good influence *grin*


      • As my list for Amazon has grown by at least a page and a half – a naughty, but nice influence!! *grin*


        • *chuckle* O, we’re all as bad as each other, I just saw your scrapbooking post about digital photos and can see myself slaving away over my own collection during the holidays!


          • So much to do, so little time! In order to save time, and I tried reading in the bath. It didn’t quite work out for me, the book has never quite recovered – too many bubbles!


            • *chuckle*
              Yes, I’ve had to give up reading when I’m doing the washing up for the same reasons LOL


  5. Lisa, you are bad influence but at the same time suggest some good reads. I read The Sinkings over the weekend. Very good and interesting, though I think a tad too long. It would an excellent book group read the discussions would be fascinating.



    • Actually I think quite a few books are a bit too long. When Thea Astley and Elizabeth Jolley and Amy Witting were writing, those little Penguins were usually only about 150 pages long. Not a word was wasted, they had very good editors in those days.


  6. […] since I discovered her brilliant debut novel, The Sinkings published by UWA in 2008.  (Read my review here and a Sensational Snippet here). Her second novel, Elemental (2013) establishes Curtin as one of […]


  7. […] really like Amanda Curtin’s fiction, starting with my belated discovery of The Sinkings (2008) and then being bowled over by Elemental (2013), so I confess to a frisson of disappointment […]


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